TOKYO — Japan, which designates every May 5 as Children's Day, had fewer children to celebrate the holiday for the 28th straight year, underscoring a demographic shift that could eventually wreak havoc on the world's second-largest economy.
A government report released this week says the number of children younger than 15 as of April 1 had fallen to about 17 million. Japan's proportion of children -- which has been declining for 35 years -- now stands at just 13% of the country's 128 million people.
In contrast, Japan's elderly population is swelling. The number of people 65 and older has reached 22.5% and continues to climb.
The unprecedented changes in Japan's population, fueled by low birthrates and one of the highest life expectancies in the world, are expected to strain government services and pension programs, as well as lead to labor shortages.
Japan now has the lowest percentage of children among 31 major countries, trailing Germany and Italy, according to the report by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. Children make up about 20% of the U.S. population and 17% in Japan's neighbor South Korea.
The Japanese government's efforts to boost the birthrate have been unsuccessful, and lawmakers have long been reluctant to relax the country's strict immigration laws.
As part of his recent economic stimulus measures, Prime Minister Taro Aso called for new subsidies for childbirth costs and an expansion of neonatal intensive care units.
Officials have also stepped up programs that encourage the elderly to stay active and working. The government has been gradually extending the retirement age to 65 from 60, and is now pushing for an extension to 70. Tokyo also introduced a health insurance system last year to deal with ballooning medical costs for people 75 and older.
In a dozen years, the percentage of children is projected to drop to less than 11%, while the proportion of those 65 and older is likely to rise to 29%, according to government estimates. Japan's population posted its sharpest decline ever last year, falling by 51,000.